The Troubling Trendiness Of Poverty Appropriation
By July Westhale
It’s become trendy for those with money to appropriate the poverty lifestyle — and it troubles me for one simple reason. Choice.
I grew up in the far-flung wiles of Blythe, California. Never heard of it? You’re not alone.
Blythe has a population of just over 19,000, and at the time I lived there in the late ’80s and ’90s, it was one of Riverside County’s poorest towns. The primary crop was cotton, the average income was $16,000 per year (for families with more than three members), and the composition was 83% non-white — of those documented. The main profession was migrant work: day labor, cotton picking, crop dusting.
My family lived in Palo Verde Mobile Home Park, on the east side of town. The Colorado River and the border of Arizona were a stone’s throw away. Our corrugated home was surrounded by irrigation canals, where my uncles often fished and caught dinner, and where one uncle, years later, was found bloated and floating, death unknown.
It wasn’t what anyone would call a glamorous experience.
This background, this essential part of who I am, makes it particularly difficult to stomach the latest trend in “simple” living — people moving into tiny homes and trailers. How many folks, I wonder, who have engaged in the Tiny House Movement have ever actually lived in a tiny, mobile place? Because what those who can afford homes call “living light,” poor folks call “gratitude for what we’ve got.”
And it’s not just the Tiny House Movement that incites my discontent. From dumpster diving to trailer-themed bars to haute cuisine in the form of poor-household staples, it’s become trendy for those with money to appropriate the poverty lifestyle — and it troubles me for one simple reason. Choice.
The Tiny House Movement began in the ’90s, but has only been rising in popularity since the recession. And to be fair, it’s rooted in a very real problem: more and more people being displaced as a result of soaring housing costs, especially in tech-boom areas like the Bay Area.
“When you have lost decades of earning capacity you really need to rethink things,” writes Andrew Martin for the alternative media, community, and production outlet Collective Evolution. Since the global financial crisis, he points out, the average price of a standard home or apartment has become close to or pushed through the million-dollar mark in many OECD cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, Vancouver, Auckland, London, and New York. “Even in the far-flung outlying suburbs of large cities, properties can easily be priced from $500,000 upwards,” he writes. “Even if you are fortunate enough to have a well-paying job or business, mortgages can take anywhere between 20 to 40 years to repay.”
Tiny homes, which are typically sized at less than 500 square feet and cost an average of “only” $20,000 to $40,000, no doubt serve some people who truly need to spend less money on housing in a difficult economic environment. It’s also commendable that the movement helps trim down on excess and reduce the environmental footprint.
And yet, I can’t help but feel complicatedly about the waxing-ons of pastoral nostalgia; about the bright, glossy photos of tiny houses that promise a “simpler life.” In the same article, Martin writes:
“Living light gives people space to define their worlds and gain more control over how they live life, ultimately leading to greater happiness and satisfaction.”
This idea of “returning” to a “simple life” is one I struggle with. After all, there aren’t any glossy photos of the Palo Verde Mobile Home Park where I grew up, enticing people to live more simply and own less furniture as a means to becoming happier.
This idea of ‘returning’ to a ‘simple life’ is one I struggle with.
It’s likely, from where I sit, that this back-to-nature and boxed-up simplicity is not being marketed to people like me, who come from simplicity and heightened knowledge of poverty, but to people who have not wanted for creature comforts. For them to try on, glamorize, identify with.
Such appropriation isn’t limited to the Tiny House trend, or even to the idea of simplicity. In major cities, people who come from high-income backgrounds flock to bars and restaurants that both appropriate, and mock, low-income communities. Perhaps the most egregious example is San Francisco’s Butter Bar, a trendy outpost that prides itself on being a true-blue, trailer park-themed bar, serving up the best in “trashy” cuisine and cocktails. With tater tots, microwaved food, and deep-fried Twinkies on the menu, the bar also serves cocktails that contain cheap ingredients, such as Welch’s grape soda. The bar has an actual trailer inside, and serves cans in paper bags, so that bar flies can have a paid-for experience of being what the owners of this bar think of when they think of trailer trash.
It’s but one example of an entire hipster movement — can it be called a movement when it’s a subculture rooted not in political consciousness, but in capitalism? — that has brought with it an ethos of poor-culture appropriation and the “re-invention” of things that have largely been tools of survival for poor, disabled, working class, and/or communities of color for decades.
Another example: when I lived in Utah, it was common for people (and specifically, white people from wealthy Mormon families) to want to take me along dumpster diving, or on Food Not Bombs drop-offs at the local anarchist house. At the time, I felt complicatedly about it — I still do — mostly because I am a person who understands the complications of family relationships, and that coming from families that don’t accept you (the reality for many queer folks in religious states) means that you may not have access to the resources you need to survive. But what became apparent to me in witnessing these dumpster excursions and FNB drop-offs is that the food was not going to any folks of color, despite the fact that I knew native folks in the community (who were queer and single parents to young children) who could barely scrape by on food stamps. The drop-offs were happening at a white anarchist collective filled with people who were choosing not to participate in the system of capitalism.
And I couldn’t help but think: that must be nice. To have that choice.
A friend told me of a similar phenomenon in her city. “They go on welfare, so they don’t have to participate in capitalism,” she said. “Yet they participate in a culture that denounces people of color who go on welfare.” She’s right — the same people of color who may go on welfare out of necessity, out of the systemic oppression that makes it difficult for them to have the same access to upward mobility, are considered socially uncouth and lazy, while white anarchists (in this context) are praised for their radically subversive actions.
Also, food. Can we talk about food? I was raised poor as hell, mostly subsisting on frozen food and whatever was canned in the pantry. For years, I’ve hated rice, because its cheapness and starchiness made it such a staple in our meals. Rice for breakfast with milk. Rice with margarine. Rice with frozen vegetables and canned beans. As an adult, it’s hard for me to eat rice unless I can pretend real hard that it’s not rice. But I still have a bag of it in my cupboard, just in case.
That must be nice. To have that choice.
For other poor folks, it wasn’t necessarily rice — it was bones. Dried beans with a ham hock. Stewed greens. Meat and pickle plates. And now, these kinds of inexpensive, filling food items most commonly found in poverty-stricken households have become de rigeur at some of the hippest restaurants in the country: you can find meat and pickle plates being schlepped off in fancy restaurants as charcuterie, or bone marrow appetizers for $12 per plate at many of the new eateries popping up in affluent cities (or newly affluent, like Oakland).
In writing this, and making note of these circumstances, I’m not trying to penalize or call out radical communities of people who are looking for alternative means to capitalism — capitalism is oppressive as hell, and I am all about alternative means.
But I do think it’s time to start having conversations about how alternative means aren’t a choice for those who come from poverty. We must acknowledge what it means to make space for people who actually need free food or things out of dumpsters, who participate in capitalism because they’ve got a kid at home and they are the only provider. Additionally, we need to shed light on the fact that many people who grew up wanting for more space and access to foods that weren’t available to them don’t understand the glossy pamphlets offering a simpler life.
Because, let me tell you, there is nothing simple about being poor.